Notes and Editorial Reviews
Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 1
Carlo Grante (pn)
MUSIC & ARTS 1236 (6 CDs: 393:15)
Essercizi per gravicembalo:
Parma, Book 1:
Parma, Book 2:
Before I launch into the review, a disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of Scarlatti on the piano. As a result, I
approached this assignment with some trepidation: How could I possibly be fair and objective with a prejudice such as that? Of course, no one in their right mind expects critics to be objective. After all, we get paid the big bucks to be the exact opposite—opinionated. In my case, my prejudice (if that’s what it is) comes from decades of listening to Scarlatti performed on harpsichord, both live and on record, by some of the greatest artists of our time: Kirkpatrick, Leonhardt, Gilbert, Ross, Kipnis, Pinnock, Tilney, Rousset, etc., etc. The harpsichord, despite its limitations, is the ideal vehicle for Scarlatti’s music in so many ways that it’s impossible to list them all here. Even the recent interest in the Cristofori pianoforte, which has been shown to have a
connection to Scarlatti at best, has failed to convince or dissuade me from my loyalty to the harpsichord.
I was therefore quite surprised when I first encountered Carlo Grante’s playing. Here is an artist whose approach to Scarlatti is so self-effacingly musical yet so thoroughly absorbing that it would scarcely matter if he were playing the accordion or the banjo. The technical mastery is all there, of course—one expects no less from a pianist with Grante’s credentials and interest in late-Romantic composers such as Godowsky and Busoni. Scarlatti’s technical demands, however, are of a different nature. There are plenty of runs and arpeggios to challenge the technique, but what is really needed in Scarlatti, especially when played on the piano, is the utmost in musical integrity and clarity. Even in the simplest passages, Scarlatti’s sonatas demand a crystal-clear finger technique that cannot be “fudged” or helped along with the damper pedal. Grante has that in spades—it’s possible to sit back and enjoy his flawless keyboard work for its own sake, divorced from any stylistic considerations.
To complete the picture of Carlo Grante and his devotion to Scarlatti, I followed the suggestion in the liner notes and viewed his YouTube videos. There are three of them, each containing a single sonata. At the start of each one Grante is seen meditating briefly, after which he begins playing (from memory), the music seemingly coming from within. No flashy display, no calling attention to himself—he is utterly at the service of the music. Even when the music becomes active, he remains completely calm and in control.
To be sure, there are limitations to Scarlatti played on the piano that even Grante cannot overcome. The modern piano is built for maximum volume of sound and resonance, the kind needed to carry over a 100-piece orchestra. Coupled with this is the fact that the piano is mechanically under-dampened: The dampers are actually too small to quickly squelch the vibrations, especially in the bass. This has a profound impact on clarity of articulation; runs and arpeggios will never be as crisp and clean as they are on a harpsichord. Because of the piano’s greater resonance and longer decay time, there is also the danger of the sound “overtaking” Scarlatti’s delicate music. Grante is as successful as any pianist in taking the necessary precautions, but it’s still not optimum.
Dynamics are another important aspect. As noted in the interview, Grante prefers to vary the accentuation and metrics, rather than opting for large, romantic-style phrasing, which is to his credit. In truth, however, very few pianists go to this extreme when playing Scarlatti, just as very few try to make Bach sound like Beethoven or Brahms. Grante does use an occasional hushed,
, often on a repeated phrase, which sounds a little anachronistic. Considering the terraced dynamics available on most harpsichords, you could argue that it’s appropriate to the style.
Grante’s ornamentation, as noted in the interview, includes something that hasn’t been heard before in Scarlatti: a guitar-like repeated note pattern that Scarlatti called
(not the same as a violin
). It’s very effective, and Grante is careful to differentiate between it and a more conventional trill. With his considerable technique, Grante is able to play the ornaments as cleanly as anyone; only when one listens to a representative harpsichord recording—one of Colin Tilney’s, for example—does the relative sluggishness of the grand piano action become apparent.
As mentioned in the interview, Grante employs a Bösendorfer Model 290 Imperial. At nine and half feet (2.9 meters) long, it is the Big Daddy of all concert grand pianos. The extra notes in the bass, which increase the compass to nine octaves, are certainly not needed in Scarlatti, but one could argue that the extra bass strings are valuable for the extra measure of warmth they impart to the sound. The sound is already noticeably warmer than that of a Steinway, and the characteristic sound of the different registers—soprano, tenor, bass—is discernable, but only if you listen very closely. It helps immensely that this is one of the most beautiful, natural-sounding piano recordings in the catalog. Kudos to engineer Martin Klebahn for an outstanding effort.
Even at one sixth of Scarlatti’s total output, there is such a range of music in the present six-CD set that it is not possible to go into detail about the individual sonatas. The logical place to start one’s Scarlatti odyssey, of course, is the collection known as
30 Essercizi per gravicembalo
, first published in London in 1738 or 1739. These are the works that took Europe by storm; one can easily imagine the astonishment of the French, for example, when they first heard the unique music of this obscure Italian composer. The Dutch, English, and Germans were equally enthralled, judging by the pirated editions that sprang up quickly in the following years.
As the only printed edition apparently issued under the composer’s supervision, the
are a tightly knit group; they display a certain coherence and logical order that becomes apparent after repeated auditions. There are no allemandes or sarabandes such as you find in Bach or Couperin, but there is an incredible diversity of styles and moods, each sonata the perfect foil for the one that preceded it. The music is often ostentatious in its display: fanfare-like figurations (E23), scurrying passagework (E29), even imitative counterpoint (E30—the famous “Cat’s Fugue”), although Scarlatti’s primary objective is always to tell a little story, to create a succinct musical moment, rather than write in a pre-conceived form. The minor mode seems to have been particularly inspiring (E8–11), although Scarlatti never resorts to a full-blown
Sturm und Drang
kind of treatment. It’s all completely civilized and rather internalized, especially in Grante’s hands.
The 60 sonatas from Parma Books 1 and 2 continue the stylistic trends of the
, but in general there is a greater concentration of expression and a more detailed working-out, for example in the extended C-Minor
(PI: 11) or the C-Major
andante moderato e cantabile
(PI:23). As noted in the interview, there is really no “evolution” in Scarlatti’s output per se. Since it’s virtually impossible to place the sonatas in any kind of chronological order, it’s even risky to consider the Parma sonatas as a unified group. But as presented, they do make musical sense. I would caution anyone coming to Scarlatti for the first time, however, to listen to the sonatas in small doses—no more than one CD, or 15 sonatas at a time. As with any high-calorie food, moderate portions are best. But unlike an expensive five-star restaurant where even the best chefs can have an off day, Scarlatti’s invention never seems to falter. This is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the music: No matter where you start nor how many sonatas you hear in a row, you are rewarded with a string of masterpieces that are all the more remarkable for their synergy.
Naxos is also in the midst of recording the complete sonatas of Scarlatti on piano; they are currently at Volume 13, having used a different pianist for practically every volume. The Music & Arts set is at about the same point; when finished, it will go down in history as the first complete recording to feature a single pianist. If you’re of the pianistic persuasion, Carlo Grante’s sensitive, enlightened approach to Scarlatti is self-recommending. The excellent engineering and a bargain price of six CDs for the price of four are further incentives. If you’re a die-hard harpsichord fan like me, Grante’s performances are a valuable adjunct to the more conventional ones of Scott Ross, Colin Tilney, and others. I look forward to hearing further volumes in the series.
FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Harpsichord in A minor, K 3/L 378 by Domenico Scarlatti
Carlo Grante (Piano)
Written: by 1738; Lisbon, Portugal
Date of Recording: 2009
Venue: Studio Glanzing, Vienna
Length: 3 Minutes 45 Secs.
Fernando Cortez: Pas des guerriers by Gasparo Spontini
Carlo Grante (Piano)
Written: 1809; Paris, France
Date of Recording: 2009
Venue: Studio Glanzing, Vienna
Length: 2 Minutes 58 Secs.
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